The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Night Ravens

Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

I couldn’t begin to tell you how many roadside wildlife surveys I’ve conducted over the years for Texas Parks and Wildlife on everything from road-killed armadillos to ringtails. Most surveys involve early morning or late evening drives along established routes on back roads to record observations of game or in some cases nongame wildlife species. Some counts are made at night when species like white-tailed deer or opossums are most active and more likely to be observed. Invariably, some critter other than the one for which the surveys was intended to enumerate is encountered. Such was the case a number of years back as I made an early morning roadside pheasant brood count up in the Texas Panhandle north of Dumas.

As I stopped on the side of a dusty section-line road to flush a brood of pheasants from the bar ditch, incessant squawking sounds caught my attention. They were coming from a large grove of cottonwood and willow trees that surrounded an irrigation tail-water pit at the edge of a big corn field. Large birds were flying in and out of the trees and alighting in a fresh plowed field nearby. When I finished the survey route, I returned to the spot to check out the source of all the commotion.

What I discovered was a rookery of black-crowned night herons in various stages of nest construction, egg laying, incubation and rearing of young. They were not pleased with me poking around under their colony and let me know about it with loud scolding squawks. I learned rather quickly not to look up when they flew off their nests. They really freaked when I crawled up in the trees with them to take a few photos up close and personal of their nests and babies. Black-crowned night heron babies are truly those only a black-crowned night heron mommy could love. I took a few photos and left them to their squabbling and squawking.

The black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is one of two species of this group of herons found in Texas and the one most common here in the Cross Timbers. Its scientific name Nycticorax means “night raven”, a moniker often associated with this species for the raven-like call made during their nighttime foraging. It’s best described as a loud quock or quaik. In Hawaii, they’re called aukuu. The yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is more common in East Texas and the southeastern United States. Black-crowns are found worldwide except in Antarctica and Australia. In the U.S., they migrate from the northern portion of their range to spend the winter in coastal areas.

Black-crowned night herons have relatively short yellow legs and a stocky or hunched profile without the characteristic long neck of other heron species. Feather coloration on their head and back is black; wings are pale gray and breast feathers lighter gray or white. Two or three long white flowing plumes extend from the back of the head of adults and their eyes are red. I’ll never forget those bright red eyes peering at me through the rustling leaves of a cottonwood tree years ago as I clumsily climbed into that rookery. Juveniles have brown plumage on their head, back and wings with white spots and brown streaking on their light colored breasts. Adult plumage is not acquired for about a year and they may not breed until they’re two or three.

Black-crowned night herons may nest in isolated colonies or in colonial rookeries with other species of herons and egrets. Females build a flimsy platform nest precariously place at the forks of tree limbs and branches. It’s constructed of small sticks and then lined with grass or other soft materials brought to her by the male – it’s her way or no way. There she’ll lay three to five pale blue eggs that are incubated by both of them for 24-26 days. Young are fed regurgitated food items (yuck!) by both parents for another 28 days before fledging at 42 days. They’ll begin to crawl about and explore on limbs around their nest when about three weeks of age. While they’re still flightless, young black-crowns are known to be aggressive and will regurgitate or defecate on intruders, including an unsuspecting wildlife biologist (been there – done that!).

As their common name implies, they’re most active late in the evening and into the night. It’s during this time they hunt for their prey around aquatic habitats such as marshes, rivers, ponds, swamps and other wet areas. Foods of choice include small fish, frogs and other amphibians, crustaceans, insects, snakes, rodents, mussels and even carrion. Along the coasts, they’ll feed on squid, clams, small birds, bird eggs, crabs and invertebrates. During the nesting season, they may be seen forage during the day to satisfy the voracious appetite of their nestlings.

They usually hunt by standing still or walking slowly along shorelines or in shallow water, snatching their prey with a rapid thrust of their neck and stout bill. Food items are securely held in their dark serrated bill and then flipped for proper orientation for swallowing whole. Their strong digestive acids dissolve even bones, turning them into limy white feces. Unlike other herons, they can swim well and may light on water or dive headfirst after prey. Some black-crowns have even learned to hang out around well lighted shorelines of ponds and lakes in urban areas for their nocturnal hunting forays.

Night ravens are only one of many critters that go quank in the night and make you jump and wonder, from the security of your tent or sleeping bag, what’s out there – is it coming closer or going the other way. Just shut your eyes and listen for the night raven and unless you hear one saying “NEVERMORE - NEVERMORE” – all is well in the Cross Timbers. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Two New Books about Dragonflies and Damselflies
by Ro Wauer

For anyone who has ever been curious about dragonflies and damselflies, two exceptional books on these amazing creatures have been published this summer. And they are very different. One offers a marvelous review of the world of odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), and the second is a field guide of sorts to all the odonates that occur in Texas and adjacent states.

The first of these - "A Dazzle of Dragonflies" by Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell (Texas A&M Press) - is a large, beautiful book that contains well-written information about dragonfly natural history, prehistory, and folklore. It also provides instructions on catching, collecting, photographing, and scanning odonates, as well as tips on creating a water garden to attract them. The abundant photos are exceptional, and the numerous other images, such as various wing patterns, eyes, and abdomens, are the result of scanning. Surprisingly effective! Appendices A and B offer information of a dragonfly website - www.dragonfly.org - and "Colloquial Names of Dragonflies." The webpage can be used as an excellent tool for dragonfly identification. And the book, "A Dazzle of Dragonflies," is well worth the price ($39.95) and makes for an excellent gift book.

The second book - "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States" by John Abbott - is even more exciting to me. Finally, here is a book that contains all 178 dragonflies and 85 damselflies known for Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Although this book does not include the abundant color photos located adjacent to the pertinent text, it does include one to several images of each species on 64 clumped pages. It also is full of pen-and-ink drawings depicting various structural features.

The text itself is very well done. Size, regional distribution with an up-to-date range map, general distribution, flight season, identification, similar species, habitat, discussion, and references are included for each species. For instance, in discussing the eastern pondhawk, a common dragonfly of South Texas, the authors point out that it flies "year-round" and is common along our various river drainages, including the Guadalupe, Nueces, and San Antonio, and describes it as possessing a green face, clear wings, and an abdomen that is "black with green dorsolateral spots.." In the discussion, Abbott mentions that it inhabits "almost any slow-moving body of water, they are often found around plants on the water surface, such as water lilies, lotus, and duckweed, where males patrol their territories."

There also is a key to the families that I found easy to use once the physical features (included on three pages of sketches) were understood. The odonate families included broad-winged damsels, spreadwings, threadtails, pond damsels, petaltails, clubtails, spiketails, darners, skimmers, and emeralds and cruisers. I find that odonate family and species names are marvelous. How about jewelwings, rubyspots, dancers, bluets, darners, dashers, and gliders?

Approximately 5,500 species of odonates are known worldwide, with 435 of them in North America north of Mexico. They are considered some of the most ancient of all insects; fossil odonates are some 250 million years old, and some had a wingspan of two feet. Only recently, perhaps in the last couple years, has interest in odonates increased with people beyond the professional entomologists. Like the hobby of butterflying, and birding long before that, the interest in odonates has become a significant hobby in recent years. In fact, an annual dragonfly festival is now held at Weslaco in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

These two books, especially Abbott's "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States," published in 2005 by Princeton University Press, will undoubtedly enhance the hobby even more.


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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Cardinal Families are Commonplace
by Ro Wauer

There are as many as 30 "redbirds" in my yard each evening now. These congregations consist of adults, both males and females, and a ragtag assortment of youngsters. The young birds are just beginning to show their sexes, the males with more reddish colors than the yellowish-tan females. But all have the large, red bill typical of cardinals. During most of the day, cardinals appear at my feeders in smaller groups of two to five, but by evening they come in greater numbers, apparently to take advantage of a last-minute snack before settling in for the night. They are able to crack even the large seeds with their heavy bill, including seeds that the smaller less-endowed seedeaters are unable to handle.

Cardinals are well known for their flocking habits. Except when nesting, when they generally maintain a smaller nest territory, they seem to enjoy the company of others. Oftentimes, these groups consist of several family groups, gathering together at a feeding station or other choice site from some distance. They will hop about on the feeders, on the ground, or on adjacent vegetation. This time of year, when the youngsters are still not fully independent, they can be seen begging their parents, or even other adults, for a handout. Researchers have reported that although both parents feed the nestlings, the adult female looses interest soon after the young leave the nest, while the adult male often continues to feed the young for a much longer period. Females sometimes begin a second nest at about this time.

Singing always accompanies the nesting process. Cardinals often begin singing very early each morning, even before dawn, during courtship. In early spring, cardinal songs are oftentimes the earliest of all bird songs. Although the typical cardinal song is easily recognized as a either a "what cheer, what cheer," they often also sing "pretty pretty pretty." But cardinal songs vary geographically throughout their range. The songs possess different syllable types and also are of different duration and complexity, but still possess the same general notes.

Both sexes sing, the male may do so more than the female, and dueting has been recorded on numerous occasions. And there is a difference between the songs. The adult female cardinal whistles a slightly more nasal song than the male, and also shows more variation syllable to syllable, according to a researcher from Columbia University. The same Columbia ornithologist explained that song differences might be due to hormones. She explained that "young male cardinals go through a nasal, wobbly phase as their androgen kicks in. Females sing as if they have a juvenile male song." Another researcher further explained that female cardinals develop their singing potential later. "Males... may face stronger pressure to evolve purer tones, which carry farther, to announce 'no trespassing' or 'seeking mate' to distant cardinals."

Year-round, cardinals are welcome in my yard and in most yards throughout their range. That range extends from the northeastern corner of the United States to the tip of Florida and westward throughout most of Texas and along the Rio Grande to the Big Bend Country and west almost to Arizona. In the drier Southwest, cardinals are found only in riparian areas. They are replaced by the look-alike pyrrhuloxia in the drier Southwestern deserts. And in recent years cardinals have experienced a northward range extension, probably due to global warming and/or increased urbanization that has provided feeders and a welcome mat for such a marvelous creature.


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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Daddy Longlegs are Common in Summer
by Ro Wauer

Daddy longlegs, also known as granddaddy longlegs or harvestmen, have been around since early spring. But the young daddy longlegs, which emerged from overwintering eggs, hide under boards, rocks, and other objectives until they are fully-grown in summer. Not until then do they venture out into the open, appearing in our fields and gardens and in our barns and other structures, and we become aware of their presence. In fact, the harvestman name comes from their normal appearance during the summer harvest. In Europe, large numbers of harvestmen are considered signs of a good harvest, and it is unlucky to kill one.

Most often, daddy longlegs are lumped with spiders, but they actually belong to a unique family of arthropods known as Phalangiidae. They differ from spiders in that they have no constriction, or waist, between their front part and abdomen. Also, their legs are much longer than that of spiders. This gives them a rather awkward appearance. But they are able to move surprisingly fast when necessary. And they also have a strange habit of moving up-and-down, like of a springboard, when disturbed. Finding congregations of several dozen daddy longlegs moving up-and-down in unison can be unnerving.

Their eight legs seem extremely fragile, and they sometimes get entangled in cracks, weeds or whatever. But when that occurs, they simply discard the entangled leg and move on; they are able to grow a new one in no time. Their legs, however, are stronger than they appear.

Another major difference between daddy longlegs and spiders is their lack of silk glands. They, therefore, are unable to spin webs. Daddy longlegs feed on spiders, mites, and small insects, which they run down and capture. They also suck juices from soft fruit, vegetables, and decaying material. They general are active only at night. Plus, daddy longlegs lack poison glands of any kind; they defend themselves by emitting a foul odor.

There are about 200 kinds of daddy longlegs in North America, some with a three-inch leg span. But they all look basically alike. The females lay eggs in the ground, under rocks, or in crevices in wood prior to the first frost, and most do not survive the winter. Here in South Texas, some individuals make it through the winter by hibernating under rubbish and in other damp, warm locations. The survivors appear in spring, but they do not become commonplace until the new crop is out and about.

Although daddy longlegs may seem menacing at times, they are harmless, and generally good to have around. They have no bad habits!


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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Caterpillars are Truly Fascinating Creatures
by Ro Wauer

Its been said that butterflies are only caterpillars that are all dressed up! In a real sense, that is true. For butterflies are only the final product of an egg that hatches into a caterpillar that eventually enters the pupa or chrysalis stage from where the butterfly will finally emerge. Butterfly caterpillars develop a chrysalis while moth caterpillars develop cocoons. The vast majority of caterpillars that eat gardens and crops are moth caterpillars; very few butterfly caterpillars eat standard garden plants and seldom become pests.

Over the years I have photographed caterpillars when the occasion arises, especially those that are attractive or out-of-ordinary. I probably have a collection of 100 caterpillar slides without a name. There has not been an easy book to help with identification, although I have sent a few images to caterpillar specialists on occasion. But now I will have no excuse for not identifying all of my caterpillar photos, as a new book - "Caterpillars in the Field and Garden" by Thomas Allen, Jim Brock, and Jeff Glassberg - has just been published by Oxford University Press ($29.95). It contains about 125 pages filled with caterpillar photos, range maps, and narrative. And there are another 20 useful pages of butterfly "foodplants." This is an excellent, must have book!

I haven't yet gone through my slides and digital caterpillar images for identification, but with only a casual read I already know that I will be able to place all of the various subjects at least into the correct groupings, and identify the majority. For instance, swallowtail caterpillars are large and have a "fleshy, retractable organ above the head, the osmeterium, which gives off a pungent odor when everted." Whites and yellows family caterpillars are usually green and blend with the hostplant leaves, "or with colors and resting postures that resemble the flowers or seedpods of the hostplants." Hairstreak caterpillars are slug-shaped and may possess a wide range of colors, usually adopting the color of hostplant on which they are feeding. Plus, many hairstreak caterpillars are tended by ants, which stroke special glands on the caterpillar's abdomen to obtain honeydew, a sweet substance that they eat, and so they provide the caterpillar protection from predators and parasites.

Most of the brushfoot caterpillars possess spiny, branched spines on their bodies that give them a fearsome appearance and protection from predators. Brushfoot butterflies range from snouts to fritillaries to crescents to leafwings and monarchs. Many of the brushfoot caterpillars remain together until the later instars, and they have a habit of quickly dropping off the hostplant when disturbed.

Skipper caterpillars, a group that comprises a third of our butterfly fauna, normally possess "smooth bodies covered with short barely noticeable hairs. Heads are large relative to the thorax, creating a constriction between the head and the first segment." One of the more interesting features of these caterpillars is their use of shelters for protection. They may "conceal themselves in a nest of leaves created by folding the leaf over and tying it with silk or by silking together more than one leaf." Most skippers can be divided into spread-winged and grass skippers. Spread-wings generally feed on leaves of legumes, oaks and other trees and shrubs. All live in a nest made by cutting and folding over a leaf flap. Grass skippers, or the closed-winged skippers, feed on grasses or sedges, and they make nests that can be hidden in a grass clump or high on their host. One of the best examples of this type is the Brazilian skipper that utilize cannas; the caterpillar folds one of the large canna leaves, forming a tunnel where it remains during the daylight hours, but comes out to feed on the canna leaves after dark.

Butterfly eggs usually hatch within a week, and a tiny caterpillar emerges. "This voracious eating machine...rapidly increases in size... the young caterpillar outgrows its skin, which splits and is shed, revealing a new, larger, and baggier skin below. As the caterpillar grows, this process is repeated a number of times (usually 4 or 5) over the course of about 2 or 3 weeks. Each stage between shedding is termed an "instar." The full-sized caterpillar then attaches itself to a support and pupates; the hard shell becomes a chrysalis. In 1 or 2 weeks, but some may take a few months or a winter, a miraculous change occurs and an adult butterfly emerges.


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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Wingin’ It
“Ghost-chasing in Southeastern Arkansas”
by June Osborne, Mexia Daily News


In late April 2005 when the man came running toward me, waving a sheet of paper and yelling something about an Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting, I thought he was mad. I was still in Concan, and every day people reported their bird findings to me, some credible, others preposterous. I thought he was just another crackpot trying to put one over on me.

But when I read the NPR report he handed me straight off the internet, I realized with sudden clarity that this was for real. An Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, had been seen and confirmed in The Big Woods of eastern Arkansas where I grew up.

Before this spring’s announcement, the bird’s last confirmed sighting came from Louisiana in 1944. Sixty years later, along came Gene Sparling, an Arkansas farmer and kayaker from Hot Springs. On February 11, 2004, Sparling was drifting silently through the water, enjoying a contemplative moment in those hallowed halls of tupelo-cypress swamps along the Cache River where my father, uncles and brother often fished in the 1920s and ’30s.

Suddenly, a large black and white bird flew across in front of Sparling.

He was quite familiar with the similar Pileated Woodpecker, but he knew he had never seen this bird before. He had a hard time convincing himself that he had indeed seen an Ivory-bill.

Gene was so incredulous that he didn’t tell anyone until a few days later in a “trip report” to the Arkansas Canoe Club web site. In the last sentence he casually mentioned that he might have seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Someone suggested that Gene send his report to Mary Scott, a long-time ghost-bird chaser. She forwarded the message to Tim Gallagher, editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the world-famous Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Since Mary herself had reported seeing an Ivory-bill not fifty miles from Gene’s sighting a few months earlier, Tim sat up and took notice. He telephoned Bobby Harrison, his friend and fellow Ivory-bill enthusiast from Huntsville, Alabama. Each had an hour-long phone interview with Gene and believed his story. They decided to meet him in Arkansas and have a look for themselves.

On February 27, 2004, the second day of their search on Bayou De View in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Gene had paddled ahead of Tim and Bobby in his kayak, when a large black and white bird flew toward the stragglers. Both shouted, “Ivory-bill!” at which time the bird did an about-face and flew out of sight. There was no doubt in their minds that they had seen the ghost-bird of the swamps. This was the first time in decades that two reliable searchers had seen the species at the same time.

The day after Tim returned to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, he went into the director’s office and related the amazing story. John Fitzpatrick closed his office door and gave Tim the third-degree. After a few minutes, John was convinced that the sighting was legitimate.

In the director’s words: “That was the end of life as we knew it at the lab.” They quickly mobilized a team of researchers and expert birders and headed for the remote swamps and bayous of eastern Arkansas. They’ve had a major research presence there ever since.

After reading Tim Gallagher’s captivating book, The Grail Bird, the true story of the rediscovery, I became fascinated with revisiting the area where I spent my early childhood. Harold and I had already planned a visit to Lonoke to see my sister and her husband, so one day we drove the 40 miles to the Dagmar Unit of the Cache River NWR.

We followed the map to Bayou De View where Gene, Tim, and Bobby had seen he bird. We found a ROAD CLOSED sign. We didn’t really expect to see the bird. I just wanted to be in the area where it had been seen, to get a feel for the haunts of this legendary bird.

My imagination went wild as we drove the remote roads of the refuge and caught glimpses of the swamp at almost every turn. I imagined my father and uncle in their fishing boat, paddling among those ancient, towering cypress trees. I wondered if, on any of their fishing forays in the 1920s, they had been mystified by the huge bird that was dubbed “The Lord God Bird.” Did they hear its distinctive BAM-bam! as it hammered away at the bark? Did they hear its tin horn “Kent-kent” calls blasting through the eerie swamp? Did they observe its steady, duck-like flight on powerful, three-foot wings? They could have. I wish I could ask them.

While we were “in the neighborhood”, we decided to do a little more ghost-chasing and drove to Holly Grove where my dad grew up. I looked in vain for the spreading chestnut tree under which my grandfather’s blacksmith shop once stood.

We found Indian Bay, another favorite fishing spot of my dad’s. My brother still remembers summer trips to that special place.

A few miles from Holly Grove we drove into Marvell and found that the house where I was born 74 years ago is still there. The present owner has done a remarkable job of restoring and preserving it.

The lot where my grandmother’s house once stood is vacant, but the original sidewalk is there and the concrete garage foundation is intact. Downtown Marvell is a ghost town. All the store fronts are still there but have the appearance of a movie set. Not a single store is occupied; but I
found the one that once was my dad’s “Williams Cash Grocery”. The train station is gone and so is the railroad track, but the haunting sounds of the train rolling into town still ring in my memory.

Our Arkansas trip turned out to be not only a visit to a ghost-bird’s home but also a visit to my childhood home with all its attending ghostly memories.

At this stage in the game, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the rarest bird in the world. I hope and pray that the efforts to restore its home will be as successful as was the restoration of my own natal site and that my great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will get to experience a primeval cypress swamp ringing with the haunting sounds of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers rolling through The Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

(Copyright © 2005 June Osborne)


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Sunday, July 03, 2005

July, a Month of Changes
by Ro Wauer

July, the 7th month on the Gregorian calendar, is a month of changes in the natural world. July is the month when the entire Gulf Coast can experience major weather patterns that can arrive in the form of hurricanes. Remember July 2003 when Claudette stomped the central Gulf Coast? Although my house near Mission Valley was barely touched, my yard was a mess. I lost much of the huge cedar elm that rose over all the other trees in my neighborhood. And since then that tree has continued to shed large branches, including one major crash only about a month ago.

Perhaps, of all the wildlife, the birdlife changes the most. July may be the quietest month of the year, for the springtime and early nesters are finished, and there is little reason for territorial defense and birdsong. Exceptions include some early morning singing by some of the full-time residents. July usually is the time when several of the neotropical nesters begin their southward journeys, heading back toward their wintering grounds. Purple martins are one of the best examples, for these large swallows often stage (congregate) in huge family groups, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, at favorite locations. They will be present one day and gone the next. Only some of the more northern nesters can still be found passing through South Texas by the end of the month.

Then there are some of the early fall migrants that suddenly appear in the area. Most of these early migrants are males that have finished their "breeding" duties and have left their mates with the chore of caring for the nestlings and fledglings. Hummingbirds are some of the best known of these "promiscuous rakes;" male hummingbirds from far north of the Coastal Bend can suddenly appear at out hummingbird feeders. And shorebirds some that have nested as far north as the Arctic can be found in some at our ponds and bays. Semipalmated and piping plovers; solitary, upland, semipalmated, western, least, and stilt sandpipers; marbled godwit; short-billed and long-billed dowitchers; and Wilson's phalaropes can be expected once again.

A number of migrating songbirds are also possible in July. Although the majority of these neotropical species cannot be expected until late August and September. Many of our July visitors are simply those that may have nested just north of our area and are little more than post-nesting wanders. The best examples include blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-and-white warblers. And one cannot ignore some of the post-nesting wanders that come north into out area. Some of these, like wood storks, can be most impressive.

The butterfly population reaches its annual low point during July; the exception is during the cold winter months. But once the rains begin, often as a result of storms off the Gulf or from the West, there can be a sudden turn-around. So much depends upon the amount of available nectar for butterflies, for many species may quickly pass through our area without a reason to stop. But a few nectar sources, gardens and roadside wildflowers for example, will make a significant difference, a reason to linger and be seen.

A few of the more tropical butterflies can often be expected in July, species and numbers increase in August and September, and reach a peak in October and the first half of November. Some of the summer/fall strays to watch for include orange-barred sulphur, yellow and white angled-sulphurs, Julia and zebra heliconians, white peacock, common mestra, and soldier. And by mid-August, monarchs are possible, all heading toward their wintering grounds in the mountains and central Mexico.

There is not a time in South Texas when some truly amazing events are not playing out in our yards, fields, and coastal areas. Anyone with the interest and time can watch the changes unfold before your very eyes.